SUNDANCE: PASTS, PRESENT AND FUTURE
I was about half way through my monster preview of this year’s Sundance Film Festival when I stopped. There’s just an awful lot I’m looking forward to this year — way more than I’m able practically to see and perhaps more than you want to read about. Also, I was having a hard time writing about the individual films because, in many cases, I know too much about them. There are a ton of “25 New Faces” in the fest, people we’ve been following for years. Several filmmakers who went through the IFP’s Narrative Lab, of which I’m a part, are debuting their films in Park City. (They are Dee Rees’s Pariah, Andrew Donsumnu’s Restless City; Alrick Brown’s Kinyarwanda; and, at Slamdance, Eleanor Burke and Ron Eyal’s Woodstock premiere, Stranger Things. I’ve seen all these films in rough cut and have been an advisor to them during post-production.) A number of my friends and professional colleagues have movies in the festival. And, this year, we at Filmmaker were able to pre-screen quite a few films. I’ve seen six movies already, including three Competition titles, but my commentary is embargoed until their opening days.
As I looked over the list, then, with all the “25 New Face” references, a disingenuous lack of description of films I’ve already seen, and my careful noting of who I’m rooting for because they’re a friend, it all just seemed like too much of an exercise. So, I started to think instead of the festival generally, and all the years I’ve been coming to it. My first Sundance was 1993. It was a very different place back then. The indie industry hadn’t blown up, a lot less people attended, there wasn’t much swag, and the main hangout for filmmakers was a drafty space on Main Street called Z Place. I don’t remember much of that festival, probably because when I returned the following year it was with a film, Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was…, that unexpectedly won the Grand Prize in the Dramatic Competition. It was the first film Robin O’Hara and I produced, and we had no expectations for it other than that audiences would like it and that it would be projected in focus and with sound. Our first screening was in one of the small rooms at the Holiday Village. It seemed to play pretty well, and when it was over, Mark Amin from Trimark came up to me and asked it I was the producer. “Yes,” I said. “This isn’t a movie we could release theatrically,” he told me, “because it’s not really our kind of film. But we’d be interested in it for video. So, if a distributor wants it and needs a video deal, tell him we’re interested.” Wow, that was easy, I thought.
Of course, in ensuing years, if that’s all I as a producer got out of my first screening at Sundance I’d probably want to slit my wrists. I went back in 1995 with Tom Noonan’s second film, The Wife. This time we were in a bigger house for the premiere, the Prospector Theater. The room was packed with all the people that skipped us 12 months earlier. After the screening, one buyer came up to me and said, “It’s absolutely brilliant, but so bleak.” Shortly after the screening we learned that our financier had sold the film direct to cable.
As the years went on, I went back with more films and watched the festival grow in waves, sometimes past the bursting point. Towards the end of the ’90s, as the dotcom era crested, the swag merchants moved in, and the big parties were thrown by companies like Atom Films. Everyone thought there was gold in the indie film hills, and that a hot short could make someone a millionaire. (Or, at least, a bunch of them could make their aggregators awfully rich.) The dotcom crash erased these dreams. These years for me are bookmarked by two anecdotes. In the first, I went to a party at a Deer Valley condo that had something of a Spring Break vibe. I walked into a room where a pretty famous leader singer of a band we’ll call Dane’s Affliction was making out on a bed with two near-naked girls. A bunch of people were standing around watching, and I wondered if the owners of the condo has any idea how badly their place was being trashed. A few years later, I ran into a friend on Main Street with that same rock star. “Come to some parties with us,” she said. In the cold, we walked up and down Main Street but we couldn’t get in anywhere. Either we weren’t on the list, or, more often, the fire marshals had already capped the attendance. A seminal album and some great singles weren’t enough anymore.
In 2011, Sundance is in its second year with John Cooper at the helm and its first with Keri Putnam as the Sundance Institute’s Executive Director. I’m typing this on the plane, so it’s too early for any predictions or thoughts on trends. Like I said, though, the list of films I’m interested in is impossibly long. Regarding other aspects of the festival, sponsorship seems on the uptick this year — I got one email pitch from a publicist asking me if I wanted to interview a Midwest housewife (“someone who would never have the chance to meet celebrities”) who won a contest sending her to Park City. Supposedly there are more people headed to Park City this year than ever — 60,000. Before leaving I did an interview about party planning with a team of filmmakers who have lined up four fancy, sponsor-supported soirees for their one film. (I’ll have that up on the blog next week.) The programmers’ move towards an expanded definition of a “Sundance film” that began last year continues; I’ve already seen one movie that would have gone straight to Austin two years ago.
And Filmmaker itself will have a larger footprint this year too. Thanks to The Economist, we will be sending out daily newsletters with reports from the field and links to all of our coverage, which is live now on our Filmmaker at Park City page. Additionally, with the support of Kenneth Cole, we have a Main Street photography and interview lounge. Henny Garfunkel will be taking the photos that usually wind up as our covers (like last year’s Spring Jennifer Lawrence shot), and Jamie Stuart will be doing video profiles of the festival’s directors and actors. We’ll be uploading these as the fest goes on. Blogging and reviewing all week are Brandon Harris, Alicia Van Couvering, and James Ponsoldt, and Jason Guerrasio and myself will also be posting. Longer interviews and profiles are going up from Nick Dawson and Mary Anderson Casavant. As always, I’ll be posting quick reactions via Twitter.
See you online or on Main Street.